Album Title: Aphelion
Label: Inside Out Music
Date of Release: 27 August 2021
I have reviewed every single studio album of Leprous’ career, since they released ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ back in 2009. And I can safely say that none of the reviews have been easy to complete. In fact, I would go so far as to say that reviewing a Leprous album is one of the most challenging things I do under the ‘Man Of Much Metal’ moniker. The thing is, I can’t ever shy away from doing it, because the Norwegians are such a special entity, and their music deserves to be talked about and celebrated.
I struggled to write about the band’s previous release, ‘Pitfalls’ because it was such a personal record for vocalist Einar Solberg, dealing with his struggles with anxiety and depression, something that hit a very raw nerve with me. But it was equally difficult from a musical perspective, to describe exactly what I was hearing and doing it justice with the written word. The same is very true of album number seven, ‘Aphelion’, an album that came together almost by accident, as there was no intention at the outset to record a full-length body of work. But then, has anything for any of us over the past eighteen months been expected, planned, or normal?
Within the accompanying press release Solberg talks about ‘Aphelion’ being more of a collection of songs rather than being anything akin to a concept record. And that’s certainly borne out of my listening over the past few days; ‘Aphelion’ simply follows its own path, exploring soundscapes at will, meandering where the inspiration takes it, or where the musicians’ inspiration leads. And yet, there is a thread that connects much of the music on the album, at least lyrically. And, to coincide with my recent bout of darkness of despair, ‘Aphelion’ takes another look at the issues of anxiety and depression. However, this time, Solberg explores how he has dealt with his issues and sought to overcome them. Right now, I embrace the slightly more positive vibe that emerges in places on this record, even if it is just tentative and fleeting. Mental health is not a linear process, there are ups, downs, peaks and troughs along the way, and ‘Aphelion’ reflects this so eloquently.
From a musical perspective, as I’ve alluded to already, ‘Aphelion’ is a very varied beast, displaying ingredients familiar to long term fans as well as plenty of new ideas as well; we have come to expect a little of the unexpected where Leprous are concerned, and this release is no different. To begin with, I don’t think I’m being mistaken when I detect a greater range of sound across the ten tracks. By this, I mean that there are pronounced peaks of heaviness led in part by the stylish guitar work of six-string duo Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Robin Ognedal, juxtaposed with plateaus of greater calm and quiet serenity, with the latter more at large throughout. In fact, it is becoming more of a stretch than ever to be able to define Leprous as a band with overt metal credentials anymore; they certainly delve into those realms from time to time on ‘Aphelion’, but by-and-large, the output is less metallic overall, much more nuanced and multi-faceted.
Take the opening cut off the record, ‘Running Low’, if you’re looking for a flavour of what to expect on this album. Starting off quietly and delicately, the layers are added carefully, precisely, bringing dynamism to the rather dark-sounding composition, ultimately unravelling to present what is, with repeated listens, a really catchy song upon which Solberg delivers his devastatingly passionate and unique vocals. I particularly love the precise, sharp beats from drummer Baard Kolstad, and the assured bass rumble of Simen Børven. The strings, courtesy of cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Chris Baum add a richness of texture that is then wonderfully juxtaposed with passages of complete minimalism, as well as measured blasts of heaviness. We even get an appearance from a Norwegian brass group by the name of Blåsemafiaen to provide an extra layer that will appeal to some more than others. It’s at once a new and fresh song, whilst being recognisable as no-one else other than Leprous.
The band also experiment ever more heavily with electronic soundscapes, often coupling some bold beats and textures with string-led orchestration. The apparent juxtaposition works really well, as evidenced by ‘Silhouette’ and ‘Have You Ever?’. The former is a more urgent-sounding composition, making great use of strong beats both electronic and organic at the talented hands of Mr Kolstad, whilst the latter uses the electronics differently, to create a dark, brooding atmosphere, accented by the lush strings and sparing use of keys.
‘All The Moments’ is another grower, where I hear some of that aforementioned positivity. It is a composition of strong contrasts, starting with an unexpected slide guitar-infused intro that quickly turns into a minimalist soundscape that then gently builds, only to burst forth with what I can only describe as a euphoric-sounding chorus. I’m not such a fan of the Indie-like jangling guitar sounds that introduce ‘The Silent Revelation’, but the body of the song itself is another genuine grower full of great musicality, stunning textures and variety. And when Solberg sings about being a prisoner of his thoughts, it is a personal experience brought to life powerfully and emotionally through the music. It becomes magnetic and rather irresistible as a result.
In my opinion, the best is saved for last though in the form of the final three songs. First of these is ‘The Shadow Side’, arguably the most immediate of all of the songs on ‘Aphelion’. From spin one, I loved the chosen hook-laden melodies, the rich and resonant string arrangements and that rarest of beasts, a proper guitar solo, full of attitude and swagger.
If ‘The Silent Revelation’ felt honest and raw, wait until you hear ‘On Hold’. The lyrics are painful to listen to because they are so heart breaking, delivered with an honesty that never ceases to amaze me. Here, Solberg talks about the depression and anxiety returning, singing:
“I am back here once again, in the mist…without signs. Thought I’d fought my way back. Now I’m afraid…Will I ever be the man in control…of his world. Open wounds that never heal, pull me back…”
I can relate 100% to this. But even if I couldn’t, I defy anyone, with or without a similar first-hand experience, to listen without a lump in the throat, without a tear in the eye, without the desire to hold out their arms to Einar and anyone else in need of help and support. And, as the song develops, the intensity builds, ebbing and flowing, almost discordant at brief points near the end, before a gloriously powerful and all-encompassing crescendo completes the emotional rollercoaster of a song.
After the intensity of the song before, it seems perfectly fitting for the final composition, ‘Castaway Angels’ to be a much gentler affair, dominated by the line ‘never look back’. The melodies are graceful, elegant and poignant, led initially by a quiet acoustic guitar. I’m reminded of recent Anathema thanks to the fragility at the outset, and then the way that the song cleverly builds to leave us on a sad, but ultimately positive, hopeful note.
If ‘Aphelion’ is an unexpected by-product of the global CoVid pandemic, then it is difficult to entirely hate the last eighteen months on Planet Earth. With this, their seventh album, the Norwegian quintet by the name of Leprous have delivered yet another incredible slab of modern progressive music. At this juncture, the band stand on their own, peerless, making music quite unlike anyone else. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I have given ‘Aphelion’ a great deal of time and attention and I can safely say that it is a near masterpiece, an intelligent album that’s beautiful, honest, and authentic both musically and lyrically.
The Score of Much Metal: 95%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: